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The Quatermass Experiment And Its Legacy

By Adrian M. Sherlock



You just have to say the name and you can almost hear the incredible dramatic strains of Holst’s “Mars, the bringer of war” pounding and pulsing out of the television speakers. Close your eyes as you listen to “Mars” and you will almost see in your mind’s eye that black-and-white cathode ray screen of an old TV and the blurring, flickering image of the opening titles.

It was in 1953, just a number of months after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth had encouraged many of the people of Britain to go out and buy their first ever TV set that writer Nigel Kneale brought his amazing, unforgettable opus, The Quatermass Experiment, to the screens of the BBC.

According to the writer, no one at the BBC had any faith at all in his project with the possible exception of the man who had commissioned it and writer-director Rudolph Cartier. At that time, television drama was regarded as “radio with pictures” or theatre on the screen at best.

However, the writer and director both had a new idea about the potential of the television medium and they were determined to prove that television could deliver drama on an epic scale with visuals to rival those of the cinema.

And yet at the same time, Kneale’s scripts set out to show that television could use its weekly, chapter format to develop themes and characters in a way that a movie or play could not, building up in a way only matched or outdone by a novel.

The Quatermass Experiment was very much a television drama experiment, then, a daring test of the potential and capabilities of the medium itself.

And it is fair to say that the experiment was a rousing success, too. In fact, audience research showed that the six episode serial held its audience over all six weeks of its broadcast and its audience was enormous. Legend has it that pubs and clubs across England were emptied of a Saturday night as people rushed home to turn on their TV set so as not to miss each new instalment of the serial, as each episode was broadcast live.

It was the water-cooler talking point of the day and the writer Kneale gained a reputation as a man who could tell a story in such a way that it stopped you dead in your tracks, a way that was completely arresting to the viewer.

According to the popular claims surrounding the serial, one in three people living in England at the time watched the serial unfortunately only the first two episodes of the serial were recorded onto film for posterity. Sadly, episodes 3,4,5 and six were broadcast live but never recorded in any way, shape or form and so anyone who did not see them at the time missed the chance to see them ever again.

The reason the episodes were not recorded are uncertain. One story goes that the people who had the task of recording the episodes onto film by shooting them off a flat monitor decided to go on strike and demand more money when they realised the BBC could make money selling the serial overseas. An alternative explanation is that the BBC gave up the plan to preserve the serial after viewing the first two filmed recordings and finding them too poor in quality for overseas sales. This could be true as episode two suffers from dark lighting and at one point a mosquito lands on the monitor screen, appearing as a surreal intruder in the episode.

Whatever went wrong with the plan to record the serial, the ratings were impressive and the enormous success of the TV serial led to the BBC selling the script to the fledgling Hammer movie studio who, at the time, were busy making low-budget films about historical subjects.

When the movie version of the serial became an unexpectedly enormous hit and made a lot of money at the American box office, albeit with the alternative title “The Creeping Unknown”, Hammer changed direction.

They junked their planned next film project and instead embarked on a career of making horror movies. Hammer horror films would become as famous in their own way as the Professor who had helped to launch them on their horrific way.

The writer Kneale, already unhappy that the BBC had sold the film rights to Hammer without even speaking to him about it, not to mention the fact he had no involvement in the film version, subsequently turned down an offer from Hammer to have his heroic Professor Quatermass feature in another Hammer film called “X the unknown.”

As a result the film was made with another scientist hero standing in for the good Professor. Kneale would soon return to TV science fiction with an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984”, followed by two more serials about his heroic Professor character, “Quatermass Two” and “Quatermass and the Pit”. Hammer would subsequently make movies of both Q2 and the Pit.

Kneale would finally deliver a fourth serial at the end of the 1970s simply called “Quatermass”, but also shown under the title “The Quatermass Conclusion.”

This final serial would see the death of the Professor.

However, Kneale was not done with his most famous creation and would touch upon him again in a 90s radio production called The Quatermass Memoirs, a mix of radio play and documentary about the historical context of the serials.

Finally, the third version of The Quatermass Experiment would appear in 2005.

Once again it would be performed live on the BBC, this time as an experiment to see if 21st-century television could recapture some of the energy and danger of live TV drama from the 1950s. Also, this version was done as a single movie-length broadcast.

But our investigation must begin at the beginning of all this, with the first of the three different versions of The Quatermass Experiment. So what was it really like, in 1953, to sit and watch the live transmission of the first episode of the Quatermass Experiment on the BBC? How was it received by the great British viewing public? Well, if myth and legend and word-of-mouth are to be believed … it was nothing short of terrifying!

© Copyright Adrian M. Sherlock 2016


Sherlock, Adrian. The Quatermass Experiment and Its Legacy. Ebook. Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2016.